הלכות קדוש החדש. מצות עשה אחת והיא לחשב ולידע ולקבוע באיזה יום הוא תחלת כל חדש וחדש מחדשי השנה. וביאור מצוה זו בפרקים אלו.
The Laws of the Sanctification of the Month
There is a single mitzvah in this category and it is to calculate, to know, and to determine which day is the beginning of each and every month of the year. This mitzvah will be explained in the following chapters.
Part of the problem with trying to describe “the essence of Judaism” is that it keeps changing. As rabbis, we find ourselves from time to time having to say stuff like “As Jews we have always believed . . .” because people expect that there should be stuff that we have always believed and that someone should be able to tell them what it is. When parents are confronted by their children with the demands to explain why we have to be different than everyone else they want to have a brief, true and effective answer. People become very impatient with hearing over and over how complicated things are.
Well, some things are complicated, but even when they aren’t it’s a special weakness of Jews or at least rabbis to like these complicated things. One of my favorite portraits of this widespread desire among rabbis/intellectuals for the interesting and of its usually destructive outcomes of this drive is in Borges’ Death and the Compass:
“There’s no need to look for a Chimera, or a cat with three legs,” Treviranus was saying as he brandished an imperious cigar. “We all know that the Tetrarch of Galilee is the possessor of the finest sapphires in the world. Someone, intending to steal them, came in here by mistake. Yarmolinsky got up; the robber had to kill him. What do you think?”
“It’s possible, but not interesting,” Lonnrot answered. “You will reply that reality hasn’t the slightest need to be of interest. And I’ll answer you that reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting, but that hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis you have postulated, chance intervenes largely. Here lies a dead rabbi; I should prefer a purely rabbinical explanation; not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber.”
Treviranus answered ill-humoredly: “I am not interested in rabbinical explanations; I am interested in the capture of the man who stabbed this unknown person.”
You will want to read the whole thing. The essence of the story is that intellectuals desire complexity even as it lures them to a bad end. And rabbis desire complexity even when it undermines the institutions we serve. For all of the talk about the need for nuance and shades of grey, the successful transmission of culture depends on the ability to give comprehensible and mostly uncomplicated answers. To explain why we are going to study Hebrew instead of playing soccer, parents need a no-shades-of-gray answer and they correctly look to religious leaders to help them in formulating what they are going to say. But for people who live within the bubble, the complexity is tolerable because we are devoted to making sense of disparate positions or are strangely empowered by the tension of living between strong and unreconciled claims. Which is good for us, but we shouldn’t act so hurt and surprised when other people decide that they would rather take up yoga.
Having said all that, I can’t resist the complications. I wrote yesterday about the my interest in this chapter of halacha as part of an assault on NOMA (non overlapping magisteria or the idea that science gets to do the natural world and religion gets to stick to morals), and indeed according to this introduction it is a commandment for Jews to do some mathematics – we have to calculate the day on which the new month falls. So this is a challenge to the idea that we should partition ourselves into scientific and religious personalities.
But there are also very interesting incoherences that have to be navigating. As I wrote above, the problem with describing something as the essence of Judaism is that the essence of Judaism keeps changing. We see this in the case of the calendar, where an worldview of Judaism emerges in history displacing another competing system and then has to retreat. And it has to do the the strange requirement to calculate the calendar. Which will have to wait for another post.